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The Low-Alcohol Cocktail Trend Sneaks Up on San Francisco

PImm's Cup form Elixir

A Pimm's Cup from Elixir, photo taken by H. Joseph Ehrmann

The city’s best bartenders are quietly adding low-alcohol drinks to their bar menus, which means there's a new drinking trend for the rest of us to try. Once the sole purview of restaurants lacking a liquor license, low-ABV (alcohol by volume) cocktails have started appearing at full bars like Jasper’s Corner Tap & Kitchen, NOPA, Bourbon and Branch, Slanted Door, Elixir Saloon, and Trick Dog.

Ranging from the Michelada to the Aperol Spritz, these low-octane beverages bear little resemblance to their Soju-based siblings. Rather than replacing the real liquor in your margarita with fortified wine, top mixologists are building complex cocktails based on Campari, Lillet, and Vermouth. The result is a full-flavored mixed drink with about half the alcohol of a typical cocktail.

But who wants to pay full price for half the alcohol? Lots of people, it turns out. Local bartenders say requests are coming from lunch patrons who want a drink but not a buzz, evening patrons who are looking for one more drink that won’t put them over the edge, and beverage industry professionals who are practicing “buzz management” during marathon “networking” sessions.

“I’m getting more requests for something that isn’t strong, particularly during the week,” says Kevin Diedrich, Bar Manager at Jasper’s Corner Tap & Kitchen in the Tenderloin. “San Francisco is a drinking city, with educated drinkers. It’s a trend that’s going to get bigger and bigger.”

He continues, “We used to make fun of wine spritzers, but now we’re making good spritzes, with Lambrusco, and sparkling pear cider. We also have a new highball coming on the menu, with more sparkle and less booze.”

The trend is evident at other bars, as well. Laszlo Bar in the Mission recently added The Wallace Beery to the menu, made with Averna, fresh lime and orange bitters, topped with cold lager. Chambers Eat + Drink, located in the Tenderloin, serves the Aperitivo Obscuro, consisting simply of Cocci Americano shaken with lime juice and served in a dessert wine glass.

On the other side of Market, AQ has been serving low-ABV drinks since its 2011 opening, when the restaurant operated with only a beer and wine license for three months. Bar manager Tim Zohn says, “Most people associate low-ABV with Soju, and I’d like to change that perception. There are so many other options to make good cocktails with. If someone can’t figure out how to make a low-ABV cocktail without Soju, I will chat with them for as long as they want.”

AQ’s menu includes a Vermouth-based apértif called Churchill’s Bane, as well as the Corpse Reviver #2, which is a remake of the the classic 1930s “Hair of the Dog” morning cocktail described by Harry Craddock in “The Savoy Cocktail Book.” It’s a one-to-one ratio of Gin and Cointreau, mixed with Lillet, lemon juice, and a dash of Absinthe.

Elixir Saloon in the Mission is another early adopter. Owner and local cocktail legend Joseph “H” Ehrmann has been offering non-alcoholic versions of some seasonal drinks for the past year, and the bar recently released a full “Low-Impact” cocktail menu. Ehrmann says a trip to the UK two years ago provided the inspiration. “The UK beers are lower in alcohol so they can be drank all day long. The Pimm’s Cup is an awesome cocktail in the same vein. And having lived in Madrid for two years, I am a big fan of the Sangria format and its versatility.”

The low-ABV trend is so new that the local bartending community hasn’t yet decided what to call it. So if you’re looking for a cocktail with less kick, look for terms like “low-impact,” “low-octane” and “low-proof.” Some local bars are also serving alcohol-free drinks, called “zero-proof” cocktails, or “mocktails.”

Whatever you call it, you can expect to see more low-octane drinks on more local cocktail menus as San Francisco’s sophisticated drinkers discover this latest trend.